Saturday, January 3, 2009


I am, for the most part, not inclined to look at movies through a particular political filter.

Let's say, for example, there's a movie about an evil Republican. Well, doubtless such a creature does (or could exist), and I'm disinclined to view a movie about said creature as an indictment of all Republicans.

Even if it's meant that way.

My justification for such ignorance is Shakespeares Richard the III. Ol' Bill knew what side his bread was buttered on. He wasn't going to make a Yorkie a good guy while there was a Tudor on the throne.

Still, it's a great play. And that's what matters in the long run.

Bush-related stuff of the past decade is an exception for two reasons: The drumbeat was constant, and impossible to ignore; but more importantly, art was sacrificed at the altar of Making A Point.

I mention this because many people went to Doubt with--or avoided it based on--some pretty heavy prejudices. And that's unfortunate, because this is a pretty solid little movie.

There is a lot of acting in this movie. (Not necessarily a bad thing: 12 Angry Men has more acting per foot of film than any other movie I can think of.) You have Meryl Streep doing an accent that reminds me of an old Jewish lady, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charming priest and Amy Adams as the wide-eyed naive girl.

And, as you might imagine, they're all quite good. I've not always been a big Streep fan--I like her much better now than during her more acclaimed youth. She's convincing as the feared Mother Superior, but not monochromatic even given the narrow palette she has to work in. Hoffman has a rather challenging role, too. (I'm not sure how much doubt we're supposed to have that he's a pedophile; clearly he's "good" with children, and that takes on creepy dimensions.)

The delightful Amy Adams--last seen on this blog in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day--shows that she is just as comfortable as a naive, unworldly nun as she was a vibrantly sexual flibberdigibbit. She, in a lot of ways perhaps surprising, best reflects the audience: She's enchanted by Flynn's (Hoffman) modern ways and disapproving of Sister Aloysius's (Streep) draconian ways.

And yet she learns. Quite apart from Flynn, she learns that there is a reason for the stern-ness, and there are consequences for abandoning it. Viola Davis ("Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit") has a brief but powerful role who is willing to sacrifice her son to help him succeed. (That's as convoluted as it sounds.)

In fact, you could easily see this movie as a struggle between conservatism and liberalism and, perhaps surpisingly, conservatism comes out way ahead. I think that's probably an unsubtle and incomplete take-away, but the most sympathetic character in the movie is the ballpoint/transistor radio hating Streep.

And it's impossible to not see this 1964 school, even with its slow integration of blacks, as superior to modern ones. Sister Aloysius, as school principle, knows all the types of students there are: good ones, bad ones, fidgety ones, troublemakers, etc. She knows which girls are going to get into trouble. She's a terror, yes, but because she's a terror, a naif like Sister James (Adams) can control her classroom while still being sweet and gentle.

Sister Aloysius's matter-of-fact-ness--her complete lack of doubt, in fact--is what powers everything. The students get an education because she makes it her business to see that they do, to the limits of her ability, and regardless of any of the sticky, mushy, ultimately obstructive dramas the world wants her to care about.

It's that same shark-like focus that removes any doubt as to Father Flynn's ultimate fate, too.

Indeed, Flynn's guilt is never spelled out, but as Sister Shark swims for him, he inability to stare her down, unflinching--his continual shifting of tactics, from denial to eliciting sympathy to what might even be considered blaspheming, is what makes him so obviously guilty.

It's ultimately this dynamic--the implacable Streep versus the shifty Hoffman, the pollyannish Adams, the horribly oppressed Davis--that powers the movie. Indeed, like the aforementioned 12 Angry Men, Streep is juror #8, if Fonda's character had Lee Cobb's fierceness and E.G. Marshall's intellect to go along with his sense of justice.

The Boy liked it. And this is ancient history, really. The world isn't one that he has any familiarity with.

Althouse has some thoughts up about it. I confess I didn't notice the mucous. Does that make me unobservant? She's right about the religion being mostly absent, though there is a bit with Flynn praying and the altar boy ringing the bells behind him that was decidedly religious.

The issue of pedophilic titillation I can't really address. Going out on a limb here, as a non-pedophile myself, I'm not sure how it works. Is a movie about a priest among boys the equivalent of Some Like It Hot? Titillating because it's a fantasy, even though nothing suggestive is shown? If so, I'm not sure how the subject can be addressed at all without falling afoul of the implications.

There's also talk over there of the lack of subtlety in certain places, such as using the weather (windy, wintry) to hammer home a point. But my guess would be that writer/director Shanley would've put that in his play if it were less trouble than it was worth.

Howard Shore (and his all nurse orchestra) does a great job on the score, too.

I can see this film being very re-watchable. I wouldn't recommend skipping it just because you think it's another H-wood hit job on The Church.


  1. I am avoiding it, not for any church-y reasons. I am avoiding it 1. because the drama and controversy feels very set-up, which makes me think: how eighties. And 2. The subject of pedophilia, in any way, shape or form, seems like a cheap way of getting attention lately. Novels did it in the 90s, now movies are doing it.

    I realize I am probably being too dismissive, but those are my knee-jerk reactions. As soon as I found out what it was about, I was annoyed.

  2. The pedophilia is nearly incidental, to my mind, which, in a way sort of underscores your point.

    Although I liked the movie (a lot), I kind of look at films I want to avoid this way: There are several dozen other filmed entertainments released just in 2008 that don't deal with pedophilia and are in the same ballpark, quality-wise so, you know, why bother with this one?

  3. Very interesting, blake. I always enjoy your perspective.

    I think I'd like to see this movie. Not a big fan of PSH, but I think I'll enjoy Streep and Adams.

    Did you see Enchanted? I know it's generally a kids' movie, but I really enjoyed Amy Adams in it. She's my girl crush now.

  4. Enchanted is on my list but I haven't seen it yet.

    You have good taste in women.

  5. Why, thank you, blake.

    I'm anxious now to read what you think of Enchanted.


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